Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Question from Kristen S. - Casting of Catherine of Aragon in various movies

My question relates to the casting choices made by directors when casting the role of Catherine of Aragon. From the film "Anne of the Thousand Days" to the series "The Tudors," and even in "The Other Boleyn Girl" Catherine is portrayed by dark-haired actresses. (Think Irene Pappas, Ana Torrent, Maria Doyle Kennedy). The historical Catherine was fair-skinned with red hair! It seems a bit superficial and disingenuous on the parts of casting directors that they choose to depict Catherine as a stereotypical Spaniard. I was just interested on other bloggers' thoughts on this. Thanks!

13 comments:

Foose said...

Well, to be fair, by the time she's typically portrayed in movies and TV series -- during the "Divorce" -- her hair had faded quite a bit, so a more accurate rendering might be grey hair.

But yes, it's overdone with the flashing dark eyes and vehement Donna Elvira mannerisms. Annette Crosbie in "The Six Wives of Henry VIII" seemed a more accurate rendering of her appearance when young. Still, several of these dark-haired actresses have turned in great performances.

PhD Historian said...

Hollywood casting decisions are seldom based on deep reflection or any serious attempt to accurately depict the physical characteristics of the character being portrayed. The only real exceptions to the "superficial and disingenuous" rule might be in the casting of actors to play persons still living or only recently deceased, persons for whom there is an extensive photographic record and/or whom the general public might be able to recognize solely by appearance. I'm thinking here of such castings as Faye Dunaway to play Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest," Denzel Washington as "Malcolm X," David Morse as George Washington in HBO's "John Adams," or even Robin Williams as Theodore Roosevelt in "Night at the Museum." Figures from historical periods before photography are usually not recognizable to the general public solely by their physical appearance (with the exception of certain iconic figures such as George Washington, mentioned above). Casting of historical characters who might not be readily recognizable to the general public requires far less consideration of the actor's resemblance to the actual person and depends far more on the actor's individual "star power" and ticket-selling capacity. Richard Burton cast as Henry VIII in "Anne of the Thousand Days" is a perfect example of this. Though a Welshman like Henry Tudor, Burton did not otherwise resemble Henry VIII. But he had huge ticket-selling power.
Too, I suspect that some of the casting decisions are made for less obvious reasons. In the specific case of Katherine of Aragon, I strongly suspect that the habitual choice of dark haired women is a case of pandering to ethnic stereotypes. The average American movie-goer, unlike readers of this specialized "blog," is almost certainly ignorant of the fact that Spaniards can be and are varied in appearance and do not all look like Carmen Miranda. I would wager a pretty large sum of money that the average movie-goer would be very puzzled indeed to see a red-haired actress playing a Spanish noble woman. Having encountered a seemingly unending progression of undergraduates in university history classes, almost every one of them with an astounding ignorance of even basic historical information, I no longer have a very high level of expectation when it comes to the larger and less educated American public.

I really cannot say this often enough : Never, ever expect Hollywood to adhere to historical "truth" or "reality" when making films about any real persons. That is not their job. Their job is to sell tickets and make money by providing an entertaining film. And sometimes (even usually) those films deliberately alter historical "facts" in order to make them more readily understood by, and thus more entertaining to, the general viewing public. Even such hugely popular films as "Elizabeth" and its "Golden Age" sequel tend to play fast and loose with history. And don't get me started on Showtime's "The Tudors"!

Foose said...

Susan Doran has a book coming out in 2009, "Tudors and Stuarts in Film: Historical Perspectives" which promises "analyses of films about the Tudor and Stuart period from leading historians. The accuracy of each film is assessed, and they are also placed within the context of the period in which they were made, and the influence they have had on popular conceptions of early modern England."

Looks interesting, and may address your question ...

Lara said...

Oooo, that should be fun! That will be a great place to refer people too as well.

There was a book I came across a few years ago that did something similar but for a much broader selection of time periods and didn't go into great detail about what was right and wrong. I can't for the life of me remember what the title was though.

Foose said...

Was it by any chance George Macdonald Fraser's "Hollywood History of the World"? I enjoyed that a lot. I don't recall that he talked about the Wives, but he had some amusing things to say about the various portrayals of Henry VIII and Elizabeth.

Lara said...

Hmm, yeah, that might be it! Unfortunately I didn't actually check it out so it isn't saved in my university library check-out records.

kb said...

I attended the Tudors and Stuarts on film conference that Doran's forthcoming book is based on. It was fascinating. There was vigorous side discussion over why the Tudors get more screen tie than the Stuarts. I am sorry I had to miss some of the conference, which was held at Hampton Court Palace on the first day.

Here's the list of planned essays for the volume;

A Tyrant for All Seasons: Henry VIII on Film: T.Freeman

Saints and Cinemas: 'A Man for All Seasons': P.Marshall

'Anne of a Thousand Days': G. Richardson

Lady Jane Grey on Film: C.Levin
From Hatfield to Hollywood:

Elizabeth I on Film: S.Doran

Lady in Waiting: Young Elizabeth Tudor on Film: J.Richards

Kapur's 'Elizabeth': C.Haigh

'Mary Queen of Scots': J.Guy

The Armada, War and Propaganda in the Cinema: W.Coster

'The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex' and the Romanticization of Elizabethan Politics: P.Hammer

'Shakespeare in Love': Elizabeth I as Dea ex Machina: B.Usher

'Elizabeth: The Golden Age': A Sign of the Times; V. Westbrook

Oliver Cromwell and the Civil Wars: J.Morrill

The Unfilmed Oliver Cromwell: D.Smith

'Winstanley': C.Durston

Why Don't the Stuarts get Filmed?: R.Hutton

Foose said...

kb, I envy you! That conference sounds fascinating. Do you recall if the echt-Spanish casting of Catherine of Aragon was addressed ...?

Tudors vs. Stuarts ... I've seen a lot of Charles IIs in movies and in TV series. His mistresses were as interestingly diverse as Henry's wives, making him highly filmable by Hollywood standards. But yes, the rest of the Stuarts are rather neglected. I think Mary Queen of Scots films are considered box office poison for leading ladies; I haven't heard much lately about Scarlett Johansson's proposed film.

PhD Historian said...

WOW! Thanks, KB, for sending along that list. I am very impressed at the list of authors. There are some very big names there, from Peter Marshall to John Guy and John Morrill. All highly distinguished experts in various areas of Tudor-Stuart history. That tells me that the book will be superb. I look forward to reading it.

kb said...

PhD Historian - I think the book will be pretty good. Should be some strong essays.

Foose - all I remember of discussion about Catherine of Aragon casting was a bit of bemoaning that Hollywood prefers marketing stereotypes than historical accuracy - a topic PhD historian has addressed with vigour.

It was a good conference. I wish I had been able to attend the last day.

Elizabeth M. said...

It also bugs me that films like The Other Boleyn Girl and the TV show The Tudors depict Henry VIII as a dark-haired sex symbol. He had red hair!!! At least give them wigs. Has Hollywood not thought of David Caruso? Put some padding on him and he might even pass for old obese Henry. Though to me, Henry VIII found a true reincarnation in Keith Michell.

PhD Historian said...

I agree, Elizabeth, that Keith Michell ("Six Wives of Henry VIII," 1970) was essentially a reincarnation of Henry himself. But among more recent actors, I think Ray Winstone did an outstanding job in "Henry VIII" in 2003.

Foose said...

Just in case anyone's interested .. there's another book coming out in spring 2009, "Royal Portraits in Hollywood: Filming the Lives of Queens," by Elizabeth Ford and Deborah Mitchell. It covers the film versions of various famous queens, including Elizabeth I, and may be a bit more accessible than the "Tudors and Stuarts in Film" book (as well as being more affordably priced ...). "Authors Ford and Mitchell track the evolution of queens on film, noting how depictions of prominent women have changed over the past several decades and calling attention to the ways in which films both reflect and dictate the social norms of their era." It's available for order on Amazon.